The Year of Kentucky
By Peter Santo
March Madness, arguably the most popular and chaotic sporting event in America, will not be quite so mad this year. No, the format hasn’t changed, but most of the fun of the NCAA tournament is the unpredictable nature of the games and the lack of clarity as to who will come out on top. This year, however, it is simply Kentucky and everyone else.
Kentucky cruised to the number one overall seed by proxy of being the top ranked team in the AP poll all season, and became the first team from a Power 5 conference since Indiana in 1976 to enter the tournament undefeated. Not only was Kentucky historically dominant, but no team all season emerged as a consistent force to challenge them. In short, in a tournament famous for upsets, Kentucky not emerging as champions would be the biggest upset of them all.
Kentucky’s best assets are physical: they are significantly taller and more athletic than essentially every other team in America. While they have no true best player, at least five players could be first-round NBA draft picks as soon as this year. Their dominant offense and stifling defense are led by coach John Calipari, a highly controversial figure who always seems to attract top talent.
Looking beyond Kentucky to the rest of the field, the next-best teams are Virginia, Duke, Villanova, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Arizona in some order. Those six teams comprised spots two through seven on the AP poll for nearly two months, albeit with a changing order in each poll. However, each one of those teams has a distinct flaw.
Virginia and Arizona both have great defenses and have great rebounding, but each can go cold on offense. Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky are leading national player of the year candidates for their respective teams, but both teams’ lack depth and defensive prowess can be exposed. Villanova and Gonzaga each boast incredible depth and no glaring weaknesses, but neither are truly battle tested and they lack the true star power that the other top teams can consistently rely on.
Though the field boasts many star studded teams, the best part of March madness is always the upsets that nobody sees coming. Looking at the bracket, a few potential Cinderella stories come to mind: Wichita State, a veteran-laden team ranked as high as #9 this year; BYU, a fun-to-watch offensive powerhouse; Stephen F. Austin, a cinderella last year with an easy road into the sweet sixteen; and UC Irvine, an unheralded team led by 7’6” Mamadou N’Daiye.
All things considered, even if Kentucky does cruise to the championship, there will be upsets, cinderellas, buzzer beaters, and a slew of incredible games. It may well be the year of Kentucky, but March Madness will still amaze.
Zach Miller also contributed to this report